If you're the victim of identity theft or a data breach, you might be considering putting a credit freeze or a credit lock on your credit files. These options are similar in that they both make it more difficult for an identity thief to open new accounts in your name, but a credit freeze is usually a better choice. Here's why: state law regulates credit freezes, and while credit lock services are sometimes free, you might have to pay a monthly fee for them. On the other hand, federal law requires that the credit reporting bureaus offer credit freezes to everyone for free.
So, while a credit lock might seem like a reasonable option, a credit freeze is a better choice from a legal viewpoint and will most likely be less expensive.
A "credit freeze" (sometimes called a "security freeze") prevents a lender or creditor from accessing your credit history. If an identity thief tries to use your Social Security number and other personal information to apply for a mortgage, credit card, car loan, or another form of credit, the creditor would turn down the application because it can't review your credit score. A credit freeze won't prevent misuse of your current accounts, though.
How to freeze your credit file. To protect your credit by freezing it, you have to initiate a freeze with each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Typically, a credit freeze lasts indefinitely (unless you thaw your file), though, in a few states, it expires after seven years.
How to thaw your credit file. Once your credit file is under a credit freeze, creditors will only be able to access your account if you thaw it for a specific amount of time or for a specific company or person. To thaw (and later refreeze) your credit file, you have to use a Personal Identification Number (PIN). Under federal law, the bureau must remove the security freeze not later than:
Credit freezes and thaws are now free. The cost for adding or lifting a freeze used to vary from state to state. Now, however, thanks to the federal Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (Senate Bill 2155), placing and lifting a credit freeze is free in every state.
A credit lock operates the same way as a credit freeze—creditors can't access your credit file. Again, to protect your credit, you need to lock your file with all three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The major differences between a credit freeze and a credit lock are the ways you may lock and unlock your credit file, and the costs involved.
You can unlock your credit online or through an app. With a credit lock, you may activate or deactivate the lock online or through a mobile app on your smartphone, typically with just a username and password. With a credit freeze, you have to go online, mail your request, or call the credit bureau (and use your PIN) to initiate, lift, or remove a freeze.
You might have to pay a monthly fee to lock your credit file. Credit locks sometimes cost a monthly fee, though not always.
The credit bureaus tend to market credit locks as faster and more user-friendly than credit freezes, but in most cases, putting a freeze on your credit at all three agencies is the best way to protect yourself.
State law regulates credit freezes. Credit locks, however, are governed by a contract between you and the credit bureau. Contracts often have terms that aren't favorable to the consumer, like arbitration clauses that prevent you from participating in a lawsuit. Also, if a thief fraudulently accesses your credit file while a freeze is in place, you'll have better protection against liability under state law. Ultimately, state law will provide you with stronger protections than a contract that the credit bureau drafted. Also, as of September 2018, federal law regulates credit freezes as well.
Credit freezes might be less expensive. Freezing and lifting a freeze is free, which is obviously cheaper than having to pay a monthly fee for a credit lock.
Another option for protecting your credit data from fraudulent use is a fraud alert. But, again, a credit freeze is a better way to protect yourself from credit fraud. You can have both a freeze and alert in place at the same time, but if you're going to choose one or the other, go with a freeze.
Whatever identity theft protection method you pick is entirely up to you, but no matter what you choose, you should also regularly get copies of your credit report from each of the credit bureaus. Under federal law, you may get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Review the reports for all possible signs of trouble, like accounts you didn't open, inquiries you didn't initiate, and defaults and delinquencies you didn't cause. Then, ask the credit reporting agencies to delete information related to identity theft from your credit report. (Go here for a checklist of the recovery steps you need to take if your identity has been stolen.)
To learn about different state and federal identity theft laws and find other victim resources, visit the Identity Theft Resource Center. For a list of companies that have had data breaches, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.